Angie Dean is exhausted. Every day she’s up before sunrise to taxi her two kids to their charter schools — a 40-mile round trip from her home in Denton. First, she drops her 8-year-old daughter Reagan at her school in Hickory Creek, then it’s on to Flower Mound to her 14-year-old son Ryan’s school.
In the afternoon, she makes the trip from Denton once more to oversee an overabundance of extracurricular activities. “I pick up my daughter; she has cheer four days a week,” the mom explains wearily. “Then I run errands while my son does his extracurricular activities. He’s in a singing group and they practice Monday–Wednesday and Friday. On Thursdays, he has private lessons with the Denton Music Academy. He’s also in a garage band.”
On the weekends, Dean’s son frequently performs and her daughter stays busy with cheer competitions and volunteer work.
It’s a relentless schedule and the pace, she says, is wearing her out. “I’m running on fumes most of the time,” confides Dean.
But Dean isn’t a parenting anomaly. In a world of hyper-competitive youth sports, greater emphasis on college prep, a myriad of extracurricular offerings and the pursuit of perfect Instagram pictures, it can be hard for parents to balance their own lives with their kids’ activities. And often, the scale tips in favor of the kids — whether the kids are asking for that or not.
The days when parents were free to entertain active social lives and pursue their own hobbies, only asking that the kids be home by dark, have long passed. Today’s overscheduled lifestyle requires a parent to be not only Mom or Dad, but also a chauffeur, financier, personal assistant, event planner and equipment manager.
But how much is too much when it comes to what we’re willing to do for our kids’ extracurricular and social lives? Why are we doing it? And, most important, what are the repercussions of allowing our kids’ schedules to dictate our lives?
Audrey Kteily, Ph.D., a local family therapist, is concerned about how much parents are giving up. “It’s become the standard, the norm,” she laments. “The problem is that we judge ourselves by our peers. If the neighbor’s kid is involved in 42 activities — swimming, basketball, ballet — then we think we need to do that too. It’s that kind of groupthink that leads us to accept it without questioning if it’s good for us or our kids.”
Parenting as performance
According to Kteily, this groupthink is due in no small part to the rise of social media. “Mom and Dad see others posting pictures of their kids excelling, and they feel inferior and think they need to keep up,” she explains. “It’s a skewed view. It doesn’t show the downside. No one is talking about how the parents are burned out.”
Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, everything is on display. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to validate yourself as a “great” parent by broadcasting how busy you are. And parents are expected to do more across the board.
Impromptu playdates have been replaced with Pinterest-perfect planned outings. Helping your son ask a date to homecoming no longer means driving him to Tom Thumb to pick up a bouquet of carnations but instead orchestrating an Instagram-worthy “hoco ask” more elaborate than many wedding proposals.
In “‘Maternal Devices,’ Social Media and the Self-Management of Pregnancy, Mothering and Child Health,” an article published last year in the sociology journal Societies, author Sophia Alice Johnson illustrates the fallout of this parenting-for-show trend. She argues that social media allows mothers to create a sense of self-worth from the things they post online about their children.
As the mother “hides behind the scenes like a puppeteer,” writes Johnson, the photos and videos of her child declare to the world that she’s a good parent. Johnson goes on to warn that parents may begin to tie their pride into how many “likes” they receive, which in turn changes the way they parent.
In Coppell, where Kteily’s practice is located, the high school has a tradition of customizing a pair of overalls for senior girls to wear during football season. “It’s grown into a huge thing, where the parents are super involved in it,” says Kteily. “It’s a parent competition thing, and then they post it on social media and it becomes a status thing. But parents see this as just something they do; they don’t stop and think about the emotional implications of these gestures or ask themselves why they are doing it.”
Advertising that you are overloaded and super engaged in your kids’ lives to prove you are a good parent has become common practice. “It becomes a badge of honor and then it somehow shifts even more into thinking, ‘If I do these things, my kid will be OK,’ when really it’s the opposite,” says Kteily. “The kids run everything and the family gets disconnected.”
Doing it all for the kids
For many parents, however, the game of parental hustle is much more than an exercise in glory seeking. Dean argues that her family’s on-the-go lifestyle is vital to helping her son achieve his career aspiration of becoming a musician. As she sees it, the world is more connected and competitive than it once was, and busy families are helping kids develop a strong work ethic that will jive better in a world job market.
Dean simply describes herself as a mom who loves her kids and is doing her best to help them achieve their dreams. “I don’t mind making these sacrifices because these are the things that my kids love doing,” she explains. “And if they weren’t doing them, they would just find ways to fill their time with things that aren’t as good for them.”
Similarly, Tarrant County mom Christi Bosuro says it’s her responsibility to put her life on hold so that her kids can pursue their dreams. “[Finding balance] is an everyday struggle for me,” admits Bosuro. “I always feel really guilty when I put my needs before my children. I feel like if I were to postpone my child’s dream or interest in favor of my own, I’d be less happy with myself.”
Dean and Bosuro aren’t alone. Many parents view their time commitment and personal sacrifices as an investment in their children’s future.
High school football coach Joey McGuire sees it all the time. He’s led the Cedar Hill Longhorns to three state championships and sent many athletes to college on scholarships; he frequently encounters parents seeking to help their kids secure a place on a high school or college team. McGuire says the involvement is good but focusing too much on one thing is not.
“There needs to be a balance,” he asserts. “That balance is different for different people, but there needs to be a balance in life.”
So if the parents’ intentions are good and they aren’t overdoing it in any one area, is it healthy for them to give so much of themselves to their kids? Again, Kteily stresses, no. She states that it’s not just what activities the parents are doing or why they are doing them, but what is being left out when kids call the shots regarding the family schedule.
“If your family is at, for example, your daughter’s swim meet all day, then you aren’t spending time together,” Kteily explains. “You are missing the talking, the emotional connections. Instead of taking the time to build those connections by doing things around the house, making dinner together, going for a walk, doing chores together, or sitting down for a meal and conversation together, we are filling that time with activities.”
Kteily insists that downtime is essential. “We’ve lost the art of play,” she adds. “It’s all too structured now.”
Disconnecting the dots
As parents, are we truly supporting our kids when we allow them to chase their every interest and whim? A 2011 study published in the Journal of School Health would argue no. Instead, the authors say, parental discernment is what kids need when choosing the best way to spend their time. The study, entitled “Are Kids Too Busy? Early Adolescents’ Perceptions of Discretionary Activities, Overscheduling and Stress,” found that “children who chose their own activities experienced more activity-related stress than those who shared decisions with parents.”
Kteily says that families whose lives are organized around fulfilling the kids’ dreams often come to her to resolve anxiety and depression issues that are directly related to this topsy-turvy family dynamic. She points out that great intentions can snowball into a black hole of time commitments that leave families disconnected and parents feeling empty.
“Mom and Dad become disconnected from each other. The kids are overscheduled and also become anxious. I see a lot of anxiety disorders stem from this,” reveals Kteily. “Also, when the kids grow up and leave home, the parents don’t know how to function anymore. Their lives have been so wrapped up in their kids for so long.”
This begs the question: What happens to the marriage when parents pour all of themselves into their kids? Rev. David Alexander, senior pastor at First Methodist Mansfield, has counseled hundreds of married couples, and he recommends carving out time for each other right from the start. “In some ways, every issue that you see in marriage relates back to the task of making marriage a priority,” he points out. “Drifting apart always happens when we are not intentional about investment.”
He also suggests to parents that making time for your spouse is actually hugely beneficial to your children’s futures. “When you invest in your marriage, you invest in their future marriages by modeling for them what it looks like to make your spouse a priority and to learn to live in a committed relationship with another person.”
The notion that parents are helping their kids by giving them all their extra time and energy is not true; fostering connected relationships is the key to parenting. “Parenting is a verb,” says Kteily. “It is listening to and guiding the child, and when parents are too busy as the ‘event organizer,’ they lose the verb.”
Outlook for kid-centered families
According to Kteily, if you aren’t bearing in mind what kind of adult you are trying to raise, all the toil of taxiing to music lessons and decorating overalls will be for naught.
“It’s not that these things are terrible,” she explains, “but that we have lost sight of the goal of raising adults.” She expresses concern about whether these busy families are teaching their kids the basics of surviving on their own. “Life skills are being pushed aside,” bemoans Kteily. “When the parents seek to do chores for the child so that the child can do these activities, the kids miss out on the rudimentary skills that show them how life works.”
She says that kids whose parents push aside all their own needs and dreams send the wrong message to their kids, unrealistically fostering expectations about what life as an adult will be like. Often the parents and the kids both have a hard time when the kids finally head out on their own.
“When the parents are too focused on the kids, the kids see that you give up your whole life for your kids and they repeat that, or they expect that from others,” says Kteily, “The parents don’t prepare for their kids to grow up and leave home, and, when they do, the parents don’t know how to function.”
Frequently, this dysfunctional dynamic results in the “boomerang kid,” meaning a child who leaves home and then comes back to live with his or her parents again. It starts when kids are coddled by parents whose identities revolve around their children, Kteily notes.
Seizing the big picture
So what’s a parent to do? Opt out of all extracurricular activities? Say no to every party from here on out? According to Kteily, the solution is less dramatic. She says to look at the big picture.
“I want parents to define for themselves what they think a good parent is,” says Kteily. “And this will vary from family to family. It won’t be the same for everyone, but find those core values and let those guide you. If you start thinking about it and stop just reacting to what everyone else is doing, you will have a clear picture.”
Recently, Dean has focused on finding balance in her own life by whittling down the things that didn’t align with her family’s big picture. “My son played basketball and it was too much,” she says. “He kept missing practices because he had music stuff to do. It was really hard and finally I decided it was too much and had to make him choose. We had to choose what was important to us and once we did, it was a relief.”